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The History & Celtic Origins of Halloween

7th Oct 2021
The History & Celtic Origins of Halloween

By Simon Bendle, Mercat Storyteller

It’s the most spine-tingling time of the year. The night we look forward to for months at Mercat - when we go to town with our Halloween ghost tours. But what exactly is Halloween? Where does the year’s most ghoulish holiday come from? And why are we still celebrating it today?

Samhuinn: Halloween's Beginning

Halloween has its roots in ancient Celtic culture when, long before the arrival of Christianity, people in Scotland celebrated a festival call Samhuinn. Samhuinn – which means “summer’s end” – was one of the most important feasts of the calendar, marking the end of summer and the onset of winter. It was the first day of the Celtic new year. But the arrival of the darker months came with sinister overtones. Samhuinn was believed to be a time of supernatural danger when the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest, when spirits from the next world could return to cause mischief. People would make offerings of food and drink to their gods to seek protection through the cold, dark, dangerous months ahead. They lit bonfires on hilltops to frighten off evil spirits. They sometimes wore masks and other disguises to confuse and scare away the malevolent ghosts surrounding them.

Pagan and Christian Festivals Merge

The word “Halloween” itself came later. In the early medieval period, the Christian feast of All Saints Day was moved to the same day as Samhuinn – 1 November – perhaps to supplant the old pagan holiday. That made the night before, 31 October, the eve of All Saints Day, or All Hallows Evening - hallow being an archaic word for something saintly or sacred. So that’s where we get the word Halloween – it’s a contraction of All Hallows Evening. In the 19th century, Scots and Irish immigrants brought their old Celtic Halloween customs to the United States. And it was of course there that this most ancient of festivals took on its modern American guise of parties, pumpkins and trick-or-treating that crazy-costumed kids love so much today.

Book now to join one of our special Halloween tours, and you can read more about Scotland’s ancient Halloween customs in next week’s blog.

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